When Fred Neil passed away in July 2001, most obituaries in the press remembered him as the author of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the theme song to the Oscar winning and controversial movie Midnight Cowboy (1969), sung by Harry Nilsson. “Everybody’s Talkin” was an international hit, and would eventually end up among BMI’s 7 top songs, engendering hundreds of cover versions. But it was not a song that Fred Neil really “wrote”; it was a song that he lived. When he sang the lines “I’m going where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain,” Neil really was narrating his own getaway from an outside world that endured until his death on July 7th 2001.
But the reissue of all of Neil’s records on CD has reawakened interest in this unique and talented artist, maybe the original contact-guide for some of the more eclectic and musically interesting scenes and styles of the sixties folk-rock era. The singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, as he was often referred to by his contemporaries, he had all the markings of the genuine artist: vaporous life, hazy background and unique expression. Neil created an influential and lasting legacy, in which all American Popular Music genres (folk, blues, gospel, jazz, country, rock’n’roll, pop) fused together seamlessly. His musical craft included, above all, his omnipresent, bottomless low voice, and his effortless, haunting folk-blues 12-string guitar strumming.
In the vibrant Greenwich Village scene of the early ’60’s, there were many free spirited musicians, that were directly influenced by Fred and his music. This group included Dino Valente, Karen Dalton, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Judy Henske, Vince Martin and Richard Fariña -among others- all who would eventually perform and record. We will discuss their work, since in a way they were all Friends of Fred, jamming, performing or hanging out in the wee hours with the legend that was Fred Neil; they are all part of the his story and these lines are dedicated to all them too, since, like Fred would say, ‘that’s the bag I’m in.”
Fred never achieved mass popularity outside the Village, mostly because he was never comfortable in the public glare -“he just didn’t fit in this commercial world”1, said David Crosby, shortly after Neil’s death- but he influenced many younger musicians that went on to make their mark on the music charts. Crosby, John Sebastian, Gram Parsons, Stephen Stills, Paul Kantner, Cass Elliott, Jesse Colin Young, Peter Tork, are just some that were influenced by the music and artistry of Fred Neil. Seminal sixties groups like The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Monkees, Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills And Nash (at one point CSN thought of calling themselves Sons of Neil, but Fred nixed the idea), all have acknowledged their debt to the Fred Neil vibe.
At the end of the 1950’s, Greenwich Village, in downtown Manhattan, probably had the largest number of bars, clubs, coffeehouses and strip joints in North America. On weekends, Washington Square Park turned out to be the perfect free space for artistic gatherings. While young intellectuals and students left the jazz cellars, aspiring folksingers raised in other urban areas were attracted by the bohemian air that permeated the Village. Soon jazz musicians were hanging out with blues and folk players; there were no rules and no musical boundaries- living the music was the only goal.
Most clubs held a weekly hootenanny night, in which unknown, up and coming musicians and songwriters were given the opportunity to show their stuff onstage. At the basket houses, the ‘kitty girls’ passed the basket, demanding coins for the folk rookies who were going onstage. Café Flamenco, The Commons, Gerde’s Folk City, The Gaslight, Café Bizarre, Café Wha?, The Bitter End, Café Figaro or The Village Gate opened their doors the new music. It was all happening at once, a magical time and place that would never again be duplicated.
Some veteran acts like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Happy Traum, Oscar Brand, Ed McCurdy, Tommy Makem & The Clancy Brothers, Theodore Bikel, Cisco Houston, Jean Ritchie, The Greenbriar Boys and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee and reborn country bluesmen like Mississsippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis were there too, allowing the new kids to fill in the places.
Soon, other folk scenes were appearing throughout the states (Cambridge, Chicago, Toronto, Coconut Grove, Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boulder, Woodstock). Rock’ n ‘roll had become a mediocre cliché without excitement, so for a brief period, folk music brought together youthful expression a politics and musical excursions rooted in folk and blues styles. In this wide-open path Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen and Tom Rush emerged as the new breed of songwriters.
The music coming out of Greenwich Village surfaced right when the beat generation quit New York. Many of the beat poets went to California at the end of the decade, after living in the Village since the early fifties. The beatnik scene wasn’t focused artistically in the same gigs poets, comedians and jazz musicians would join in ramshackle events. Beat locations were the White Horse Tavern, the Gaslight, and the Jack Kerouac’s regular place for readings, the Cedars Tavern. In there, major painting artists like Willem De Kooning and Alex Katz drank their booze.
There were comedians like Hugh Romney, later known as Wavy Gravy, the Hog Farm founder. Ted Joans, a radical beat-jazz poet who had already created the prominent stance “black is beautiful” at a time when the civil rights movement was still years away. A heterogeneous setting was shaped. The Village Voice photographer, Fred W. MacDarrah was a witness: “There weren’t strict divisions between writers, dancers, poets and musicians. Those in the avant-garde grouped together, living the same neighbourhoods, supporting each other’s work by attending concerts, openings, readings and hanging out together.”2
Ex-sailor and ragtime fanatic, Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) possessed a profound blackish voice, which played over a finger-picking guitar. He released seminal albums like Sings Ballads, Blues And A SpiritualInside Dave Van Ronk (Prestige, 1963). In recording and in his concerts Van Ronk offered a handful of folk-blues standards and traditionals that later would be repeatedly covered by the next generations of folkies (“How Long,” “In The Pines,” “Cocaine,” “Green Rocky Road,” “Come Back Baby,” “Trouble In Mind,” etc.). Bob Dylan would call Van Ronk’s sofa home during the early sixties, and would learn to play “House Of The Rising Sun” and Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die,” recorded for Dylan’s first album released in 1962. (Folkways, 1959) and
About that changing scene, Van Ronk stated: “The beatniks hated folk music. The real beats liked cool jazz, bebop, and hard drugs… But in the eye of the media, folk music and beatniks were one and the same. So a lot of people came to the Village to see the beatniks and they ended up seeing folk music.”3
One guitar player who was essential in the scene was Bruce Langhorne, who worked with Neil, Havens, Dylan and Fariña, among many others. Without Langhorne’s smooth gloving guitar licks, folk-rock probably would have not existed. Langhorne declares today: “It was one eclectic movement that included a fabulously diverse group of individuals. Some of us just loved to play and sing the music, some of us were into poetry, some of us were into the historical and cultural background of the music, some of us were into the current and historical political implications and applications of the music, some of us were into sex, drugs and alcohol, but everyone was a little bit into everything.” 4
In the middle of this cross-road, Fred Neil became an accomplished artist, one who would never fit in any one category. According to Langhorne: “Among the performers of the time, Fred was already known for his fantastic voice- Fred was able to integrate his guitar, his voice and his stage presence into a compelling performance. It is difficult to separate out and evaluate separate elements.”5 Richie Havens described him as a true original, claiming that none of his “songs were strictly folk songs or rock songs.” 6
David Blue, soon to known as a up and coming songwriter, but then just the Gaslight dish-washer, expressed the difficulties of including Neil in the American Folk Music map: “All the folk musicians were kinda into camps… you were either ‘commercial’ or you were ‘ethnic’… I remember I wouldn’t talk to Fred Neil, because he was… he wasn’t traditional… I mean, I didn’t know what he did…” 7
Born in Ohio in 1936, Fred Neil was raised in Saint Pete (Florida). He travelled with his father, a jukebox engineer, through the Southeast. Some quotes place him at Sun Studios (Memphis) in the mid-fifties but it’s a fact that after a stint in the Navy, in 1957 Neil left Saint Pete and got a song writing deal in New York. He worked for different publishers at the Brill Building, the Broadway pop hit factory. There he composed a song for Roy Orbison (“Candy Man,” B-side of the 1961 top one single “Crying”) and another for Buddy Holly (“Come Back Baby”). He released some singles in various styles, mostly in rockabilly-pop mould, sometimes credited as Freddie Neil. He performed one of his songs, “Listen Kitten,” on the Alan Freed TV show sometime in 1959, attempting his hand, like so many, at becoming the new Elvis.
His career kept on growing in all directions. He would do studio work on guitar, doing sessions with two pop kings, Paul Anka and Bobby Darin, among others. In 1960, Neil recorded a demo -with Doc Pomus- for an Elvis movie, though the song was not used. He recorded a nine-track demo for Aaron Schroeder’s January Music. Later mainstays of his repertoire like “Faretheewell” and “That’s The Bag I’m In” were among the tracks recorded, and showcased a delightful mix of cabaret blues and Tin Pan Alley vocal tones.
By this time, Neil was devouring urban folk-blues (notably Leadbelly, Josh White and Lonnie Johnson) and contemporary artists like the poet Maja Angelou and the gospel-folk goddess, Odetta. He had put down roots at Greenwich Village clubs, doing sets at the Café Wha?, hanging out with Len Chandler, who was instrumental in bringing Fred to the Village clubs in 1960. Neil soon became the MC at the Café Wha?, which would include sets by Karen Dalton, Dino Valente, José Feliciano, Mark Spoelstra, Lisa Kindred, Felix Pappalardi, Hoyt Axton and Lou Gossett, Jr., and comedians as Hugh Romney, Adam Keefee, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge.
Len Chandler, a performer with a classical music education, had played at the Gaslight in 1959. Later Bob Dylan would base his early protest tune “The Death Of Emmett Till” on one Chandler’s songs. Dylan marched in Washington with Chandler during the 1963 Civil Rights rally. Fred Neil said of Chandler’s strong political passion was not a passing fancy: “A lot of people now go on these marches and protests down there because “it’s the thing to do. On his days off he [Len] used to come by and say “Who wants to get arrested?”8
Chandler was a precursor for the new wave of political singer-songwriters. His first songs came out on Broadside, the left wing magazine rooted in the political scene. One of them was titled “I’m Going To Get My Baby Out Of Jail,” showing that Chandler lived and played for real. John Hammond, the producer of Dylans first album, would help Chandler produce his two CBS LP’s: To Be A Man and Lovin’ People (both Columbia, 1967) that are out of print but full of curious soul-jazz arrangements sugared with gospel-folk vocals.
Though the folk movement of the early sixties has always been seen as white and middle class, it included many compelling black folk acts, such as Odetta, Richie Havens, and lesser know names like Herb Metoyer, Josh White Jr, Terry Callier, Major Wiley and many others that were part of Fred Neil’s circle of friends and were touched by his music. It is one of the great injustices that these hugely talented artists remain forgotten and under appreciated even today.
John Sebastian was maybe the only musician from the booming folk scene that was born in Greenwich Village. Barely twenty years old, he would be backing Mississippi John Hurt on harp: “Some of the black musicians that were our first real close friends had an affinity with Fred that they didn’t have with the New York musicians.”9 Fred always appreciated the authenticity of the great forefathers, and their influence on his music would be lasting.
An early homage to Neil was recorded by Casey Anderson, another obscure black folksinger with a distinctive guitar style, who also influenced Richie Havens. Anderson would title his second album The Bag I’m In (Atco, 1962), when Neil’s original yet to be released.
When in late January 1961 Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village, he played harp for Fred Neil at the Wha? In a 1984 interview, Dylan recalled that Neil “had a strong powerful voice, almost a bass voice and a powerful sense of rhythm.”10 During the following months, Dylan would continue playing with Neil -and with Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott- at venues like the Mills Tavern and the Village Gate. Suddenly, Bob Dylan burst out on the scene, drawing his new songs from the Village scene, just like many had done.
Charlie Brown, who ran the Gaslight South in Coconut Grove, said about the Dylan-Neil partnership: “Dylan wasn’t a very friendly person and I don’t think him and Fred really got along. I think they had a bit of a rivalry going up there. They were the two masters. They saw each other as the competition.”11 Yet, Paul Colby, who later would be Bitter End’s owner, has claimed that Fred Neil and Bob Dylan jammed and recorded some songs at the Chip Monk’s (Village Gate’s lighting engineer) basement, that have never been released. 12
Bob Dylan has recently revisited his very first years in the Village recording folk-blues versions of traditional songs Neil adapted. In fact, Dylan still plays “Cocaine Blues” (credited to Reverend Gary Davis), a song he first recorded with Richard Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, on the rare album recorded in London Dick Fariña & Eric Von Schmidt (Transatlantic, 1963). Officially Dylan would later release “Cocaine Blues” as B-side for the single “Love Sick” (Columbia, 1999).
“Sugaree” (written by Elizabeth Cotten) was recorded by Neil as “I’ve Got A Secret (Didn’t We Shake Up Sugaree)” for his eponymus album (Capitol, 1967). Dylan would later include his version of the Neil recording in his ’90’s sets. Finally, “The Water Is Wide,” a traditional number that had been another Neil’s favourite, was performed in the mid-’70’s by Bob Dylan. There’s a one version of this, with Joan Baez on vocals, recorded during the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, released recently in the Bootleg Series Vol. V: Live 1975 (Columbia, 2002).
Also at the Wha? a girl called Karen Dalton (1938-1993) would join Neil and Dylan on vocals. With her broken, Billie Holliday-like voice, Dalton played long-neck banjo and 12-string guitar. Dalton was beset with personal problems (divorced mother aged 22, a debilitating drug dependency), her performances were based mostly on piano-blues (Le Roy Carr, Jerry Roll Morton, etc.). But, as Izzy Young, Folklore Center’s owner claimed, “all the songs were comments about her hurt life and her search for some kind of happiness… The songs become a litany to the desperation in her life.”13
By 1961 Karen was living in the Village with his new husband, Richard Tucker, another local folksinger, and her live appearances were sporadic, but she always left her mark on the stage, her rare sets becoming a must for attendance for every folk aficionado, at the Café Flamenco or at the Cock’n’Bull. One photo taken of a Karen Dalton & Richard Tucker at some Village club became the cover of The New York Herald Tribune Sunday magazine story concerning the folk revival spreading across the country.
Tim Hardin (1941-1980), was a great songwriter, an innovator of the folk revival. Hardin wanted to be an actor but the connections he made while hanging out at the Village and Cambridge, would eventually land him a recording deal. Sometime after Hardin released his first album Tim Hardin 1 (Verve/Forecast, 1966), Bob Dylan would refer to him as the best songwriter alive. 14
In 1961, Tim Hardin met Karen Dalton and Richard Tucker. Through Dalton, Hardin would get to know Neil, whom he’d always admired. Dalton and Hardin, both would perform moving versions of Neil’s classic song, “Blues on the Ceiling.” Fred Neil, in one of the few comments that has survived15, wrote that Dalton sang the song with so much conviction, that it was almost like she had written the song herself; he also recalled her first meeting with Dalton, at a jam session with Dino Valente.
Dino Valente’s (1943-1994) life is more enigmatic than Neil’s, and he too was an influence on many of the young performers in New York City. His song “Get Together” would be the first folk-hippie national anthem in 1969, when it became a huge hit for the Youngbloods. He claimed to have been “raised on carnivals all around the East Coast”16. At seventeen he was in Cambridge, part of the growing folk scene there, along with Joan Baez and Tom Rush, The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Richard Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, but finding the scene too stifling, he soon drifted down to the New York City area, wanting to make his mark.
If Valente wanted an outlet for his songs and poems (he’d written dozens of them by then) his very first night in the big city would certainly have been at the Café Wha? Dino would later play with Dylan at the Gaslight. According to Peter Stampfel (member of the beat-folk band The Holy Modal Rounders and Village expert), Valente and Dylan visited Woody Guthrie, and played together for the Oklahoma master17, when he was already hospitalised (Guthrie would die in 1967).
In 1961, Valente recorded a seven-track demo that included songs he had penned, like “Dino’s Blues,” and standards like Elizabeth Cotten’s “Fast Freight” (also covered by Tim Hardin during his first recordings sessions in 1963), and “Wayfaring Stranger,” an Appalachian classic in the repertoire of Bob Gibson and many years later, in the Tim Buckley’s one. The tape has never been released but folk-rock specialist Richie Unterberger claims that it recalls the minor key tone of Valente’s only solo album, released in 1968.
Valente’s early recordings were not successful and most have yet to see the light of day, rumoured albums for Elektra in New York and Autumn in California were never released, mostly due, according to sources, to Dino’s refusal to relinquish total control over his music. In 1963, Valente moved to the West Coast, rooming with a young David Crosby, another Neil acolyte, in a Sausalito houseboat.
Richie Havens, born in Brooklyn (1941), had been a member of gospel and doo-wop groups but when he commenced to write poetry, he soon found himself in the Village, and later, in 1969, Havens would open the Woodstock Festival. One of the first acts he encountered in the Village though, upon his arrival, was Dino Valente and Fred Neil performing as a duo at the Wha?, and was blown away: “The in-crowd would drop everything to be there, especially to see them close out the show with their folk rock version of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”… They were completely involved in the music of their youth and writing the music of our future.” 18
Dino Valente and Fred Neil were seen as the example to follow by all the newcomers who wanted to be cool. The atypical and rhythmic 12-string guitar strumming that both of them used had its origin in Bob Gibson (1931-1996). John Sebastian has mentioned the Gibson’s influence on Neil’s, Valente’s and Havens’ styles: “Gibson was the first guy to take a 12 string and kind of knowing Leadbelly had done it, and jazzed up a folk music strum a little bit”. 19
Gibson, who had recorded four urban folk albums in the second half of the ’50’s (compiled in the excellent CD Joy, Joy The Young And Wonderful Bob Gibson, Riverside, 1996), co-wrote the song “What You Gonna Do” for his Where I’m Bound album (Elektra 1964) with Neil, his last album before a self imposed hiatus.
In 1961, Gibson had formed a duo with Hamilton Camp. The latter’s landmark album was Paths Of Victory (Elektra, 1964) that would include a bunch of Dylan covers with double-tracked voice and trendy tunes. It seems that Camp had also jammed at Chip Monk’s with Neil and Fred, where he could learn some Dylan’s unknown pieces, that he would record for that album.
The ground-breaking album of both, Gibson & Camp, solo or as a duo, was Live At The Gate Of Horn (Elektra, 1961), in which Camp would add enchanted vocal melodies to folk standards like “Old Blue,” “John Henry” or “Betty And Dupree.” For Roger McGuinn, the album sounded like the Beatles even before the fab four would exist. Because the Gibson & Camp album, McGuinn, who later would start The Byrds, and like Gibson came from Chicago, began playing the 12 string guitar.20
In 1961, Bob Gibson, who would support and promote many up and coming talents like Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs, created New Concept, his own management office, that tried to book himself “and some other folkies in some of the places available. We had an incredible roster of people, Freddie Neil, David Crosby, Bobby Dylan, Richie Havens and several others, nearly whom went on to do great work.” 21 Dylan, after landing a record deal with Columbia in 1962, signed with another Chicago native, who had moved to New York, Albert Grossman, who had first managed artists like Odetta and Gibson himself.
Meanwhile, Bob Gibson presented Neil in Chicago and Toronto. In Hollywood, Camp, Gibson and Neil did a series of folk music radio programs. Gibson would maintain his close friendship with Fred, helping in the mixing of his last official release, the Other side of this Life album in 1971.
By his hand, Vince Martin (born 1938) was crucial in Neil’s life and career. Both of them would perform as a duo since 1961 -and would record an album in 1964 Tear Down The Walls (Elektra)- thinking in the Gibson & Camp model. Born in NYC and really named Vincent Marcellino, Martin had recorded the huge hit “Cindy Oh Cindy” backed by the popular folk group The Tarriers, one of the first integrated folk ensembles. Martin went on to release several singles, mostly on the Glory label, before finding himself immersed in the folk boom, where he would eventually hook up with Fred in early 1960: “I was sitting there playing guitar with Hoyt Axton, a cold winter night, when Dino Valente came in, and then Freddy came in. Dino introduced me to Fred that night. We jammed all night long.” 22
It was not long before hard drugs appeared on the scene and began to take their toll on both music and musician. Valente was busted and spent time behind bars in the late sixties, preventing his career from taking off. Neil also battled drugs, making him someone that industry would shy away from embracing, to quote Jac Holzman, the man who gave Fred his first recording contract: “listening to ‘Blues on the Ceiling you could almost forgive him his irresponsibility as a human being.’ 23 His tenure at Elektra would be short lived.
Karen Dalton was a junkie almost all her adult life and lived long periods of sorrowful existence until she died of AIDS-related illness. Regarding Hardin, Paul Colby wrote: “For some reason that I could never quite understand, a pitfall into drugs and boozed seemed to go with the territory… Some guys are like puppies that break their leash and run headlong into traffic. There’s no way you can stop them.” 24
Soon, drugs and the pressure to succeed caused many to retreat. Karen Dalton would flee to the country, mostly Boulder (Colorado) and Woodstock. Both Neil and Tim Hardin would also spend considerable time in Woodstock, attempting to escape the pressures of city life.
Neil specially became withdrawn and uncomfortable hanging out with strangers. Steve De Naut, who joined Neil on bass in the mid-sixties, confirms: “He used to like to hide out from all the young folksingers who sucked up to him. Sometimes he’d hang out there for days and nobody knew where he was. We did a lot of speed in those days, and smoked massive quantities of hash.”25
He also was innately suspicious of anything that even hinted at commerciality. “He’s a good friend of Lenny Bruce’s, and of these jazz musicians,” said John Sebastian,”and they equated commercialism with some kind of selling out. With some kind of a denigration of what they did. And so this kind of selling out was something that Fred was very afraid of.” 26 Fred in fact, was friendly with Bruce, doing a show with him at The Gate of Horn in Chicago, in December 1962, a show that would end up with Bruce being arrested on obscenity charges. Neil admired Lenny Bruce and became a close friend of the embattled comedian, according Howard Solomon and Sam Hood, both Village club owners friendly with both artists.
Lenny Bruce was a huge influence and friend to all; Hardin lived for a time in Bruce’s L.A. home, where he composed many of the songs that would be eventually released on Tim Hardin 1 and Tim Hardin 2Tim Hardin 3/ Live In Concert (Verve/Forecast, 1968). Neil’s partner, Vince Martin, also was hired by Lenny Bruce in 1962 to open for him at the Bel Air Hotel in Miami: “He asked me if I knew his face, I said yeah, ‘Lenny Bruce, got your record, man.’ He then said he hated folk music! ‘You’re the only folk singer I ever heard who isn’t and doesn’t act like a wounded bird. Wanna open the show for me next week?’ Working with him for a month was a book on its own.” 27 (Verve/Forecast 1966-67), and would even dedicate one of his best songs to the comedian, “Lenny’s Tune,” released on
Another artist who opened shows for Bruce was Judy Henske who did the honors when Lenny played the Unicorn in Los Angeles. Henske was a terrific blues singer who had been a member of the Whiskeyhill Singers, who when in New York would regularly open for another up-and-coming comedian, Woody Allen. Henske’s manager was Herbie Cohen, owner of the Unicorn in L.A., where Bruce performed and would eventually be arrested.
Cohen soon branched into managing some of the acts that performed at his club, like Frank Zappa, Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, and for a time, Fred Neil. It was Cohen who hooked up Neil with Nik Venet at Capitol, soon after Fred left Elektra. His freelance executive presence in recordings of Henske, Neil and Buckley, would bring back impressive line-ups, including musicians like stand-up bass player Jimmy Bond, Jr., guitarist John T. Forsha and drummer Billy Mundi.
Unfortunately, few of these artists would achieve commercial success. Valente recorded only one poor selling solo record before joining Quicksilver Messenger Service, reinventing himself as a rocker. Karen Dalton recorded two albums and disappeared. Martin did the same, his last record coming out in 1973. Hardin, would continue to record, off and on, until his drug related death in 1980. Henske would not release an album for more than thirty years. Fred Neil went south to Coconut Grove, Florida, where he retired from the music business, living off the royalties generated by his songs, especially “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
In hindsight, these musicians were not really folksingers, their styles being too diverse and influenced by too many musical strands to be labelled simply as ‘folk music.’ On one hand, they were influential among their fellow musicians, seen as trailblazers of a new era, where all different types of music would play off each other, but on the other hand, they became difficult for record labels to be able to pigeonhole, simply not knowing what to do with such innovative sounds. Record companies at the time were looking for the next Kingston Trio. It was not until a handful of small labels, led by Elektra, Vanguard and Verve/Folkways, began to take chances signing the more eclectic ‘folksingers’ that artists like Fred Neil and Dino Valente were afforded the opportunity to record.
Karen Dalton songs sounds like rural blues but her down-tempo rhythm and gravely-voice atmospherics had more of jazz than folk. About her, the bass player Eric Weisberg has said: “I just can see some fat cat record executive chomping on a cigar and asking “what’s the image we’re selling here.”28
Judy Henske is another artist that was not easy to label. Her selections achieved a perfect balance of jazz, blues ballads and folk standards. Live, she would pepper her act with comedy bits: “People used to say to me ‘Why don’t you just do blues or folk. But I liked all kinds of music, so I did jazz, murder ballads, blues, folk, anything I wanted. You can live your entire life in a box, or you can get out of the box, which is what I did.” 29
Tim Hardin’s style was basically Chess blues mixed with strong doses of Mose Allison, Ray Charles, and Lefty Frizell: “I’ve always thought of myself as a jazz singer. Jazz to me is just personal. Everyone who is a jazz player, according to my definition, plays like only he plays. No one else plays that way. I also feel that jazz is blues is jazz is blues is… Blues is not a restrictive term… If it ain’t true it ain’t jazz and if it’s true it’s the blues.” 30
Dino Valente’s live performances were legendary: an unstoppable hurricane of twelve-string guitar and hoot vocals. Paul Kantner, later Jefferson Airplane’s leader: “Nothing ever stood out with Dino on tape, ’cause he really connected visually and vocally… There was a certain thing to him that was not really capturable, ever, really.”31 With him, no genre/style was the clue. The legendary jazz reviewer Ralph J. Gleason would describe the commanding and comprehensive art of Valente this way: “He is a philosopher as well as a poet and a performer with the power to move people.” 32
Fred Neil was stretching the bounds of traditional folk, making his music an unique creative expression: fusing blues, pop, jazz, traditional folk into sounds that would soon to be labelled folk-rock. Murray Kronis, a fiddle player who knew him in Toronto, thinks it’s unquestionable that there was an all-embracing quality to Neil’s music: “He didn’t worry too much what other people thought, especially the recording industry which would prefer that he played something identifiable like blues or folk or something… I realize that he was talking about his music as a fusion of influences and styles from folk, blues, jazz and whatever, but the word “fusion” never came up in our conversation. Fred was ahead of his time.” 33
In Fred Neil’s case, we also have The Voice: Odetta echoes the thoughts of many when she says “There are two voices I heard in my life that no microphone can possibly capture. Paul Robeson is one, and the other is Fred… when you hear him in person there are other levels… his voice is a healing instrument.” 34
Howard Solomon, Fred Neil’s one-time manager: “He used to say to me that his writing was a process of ongoing tuning to the caverns of his voice. He hardly ever repeated a note or phrase the same way twice though he often reached for it. He was more a jazz improvisational player and rarely stuck to the same way from one performance to the other.” 35
Fred Neil, Dino Valente and Karen Dalton were a different breed of folksingers, more musically inclined than the topical songwriter-artist of the day, in a way they were well ahead of their time. Recommended listening: Sessions (Capitol, 1967) by Neil, Dino Valente (Columbia, 1968) eponymus album by himself, It’s So Hard To Tell You Who’s Going To Love You Best (Capitol, 1969) by Karen Dalton or If Jasmine Don’t Get You The Bay Breeze Will (Capitol, 1969) by Vince Martin.
FRED NEIL RECORDINGS
In 1962, Fred followed Vince Martin to South Florida, giving birth the Coconut Grove folk scene. David Crosby, Mama Cash Elliott, Lisa Kindred, Buzzy Linhart and others would soon follow would create a vibrant folk-blues-jazz scene attached to that special Southeast jasmine breeze. Then, Neil would record his first album: an under-rated duet with Vince Martin titled Tear Down The Walls (Elektra, 1964) that exhibited strong American roots influences.
Bleecker & MacDougal (Elektra, 1965) followed, his first full-length masterwork full of galloping folk-blues and master balladry, showing raga influences. By then, he was only playing New York sporadically, mostly at the Nite Owl Café and the Café au Go Go, moving to Los Angeles after signing with Capitol records. During this time, Neil would be backed sometimes by The Seventh Sons, the Buzzy Linhart acoustic-excursionist band. Richie Havens and Buzzy Linhart, among others, also would play the same venues and gigs and would make popular this new kind of progressive folk style -also preferred by Sandy Bull, John Fahey and Richard Fariña- that was already light years from traditional patterns.
The end of the decade was maybe his best recording period ever. Although based in Coconut Grove in Miami -where he really fell in love forever with dolphins- Neil would record for Capitol Records his three last albums (Fred Neil, Sessions, Other Side Of This Life) with Nik Venet at the controls. Much unreleased material from the Capitol period remains, disgracefully, in the vaults. He rarely performed live, save for the odd set in California, Woodstock or Miami.
“Everyone wanted to record with Fred” 36, says his long time friend and partner Ric O’Barry. Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, all of them tried to do something with Fred. Jimmy Buffet, who was in the studio recording his album Son Of A Sailor at the same time that Fred was in the studio, badly wanted to record a version of “A Little Bit Of Rain” with Fred but Fred being Fred, he would not do it. He was very uncomfortable both in the studio and onstage, very shy and introspective, always was, and would not have it, but EVERYONE wanted to do something with him 37. John Sebastian said it best: “the first thing that you have to understand about Fred Neil is that you won’t understand.” 38
In 1968 Fred Neil would disappear of sight, settling for a time in Woodstock, returning permanently to the Grove by the early seventies, where he would devote much of his time to these dolphins, working closely with the Dolphin Project, which he founded with his friend Ric O’Barry.
By Toni Ruiz & Henry Llach
Perfect Sound Forever, July 2003
Riny Van Eijk, Connie Floyd Austin, Riccardo Cantarelli, Ben Edmonds, Richie Unterberger, Ric O’Barry, Susan Sherman, Bobbi Newman, Howard L. Solomon, Vince Martin, Bobby Ingram, Steve De Naut, Charlie Brown, Herb Metoyer, John Braheny, Murray Kronis, Bruce Langhorne, and last but not least, all the members on the EVERYBODY’S TALKIN’ FORUM www.delphi.com/thedolphins/start
1 Joel Selvin: “Fred Neil. The Other Side Of This Life” (Obituary, Mojo magazine, September 2001)
2 Fred W. McDarrah: Beat Generation: Glory Days In Greenwich Village (Schirmer Books, 1996)
3 Robbie Woliver: Hoot: A 25-YearHistory Of The Greenwich Village Music Scene (St. Martin’s Place, 1986)
4 Bruce Langhorne interviewed by Toni Ruiz (November 2001)
5 Bruce Langhorne interviewed by Toni Ruiz (November 2001)
6 Richie Havens: They Can’t Hide Us Anymore (Harper Collins, 1999)
7 Renaldo & Clara movie (directed by Bob Dylan, 1975)
8 Fred Neil interviewed by Don Paulsen (Hit Parader magazine, January 1966)
9 Richie Unterberger: Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers (Miller Freeman Books, 2000)
10 Bob Dylan interviewed by Bert Kleinman, liner notes to Dylan on Dylan (Columbia, 1984)
11 Charlie Brown interviewed by Henry Llach (May 2002)
12 Paul Colby & Martin Fitzpatrick: The Bitter End. Hanging Out At America’s Nightclub (Cooper Square Press, 2002)
13 Liner notes to the CD reissue It’s So Hard To Tell You Who’s Going To Love You Best (Capitol, 1969/ Megaphone CD, 1999)
14 http://www.ramblinjack.com/friends (Tim Hardin link)
15 Sleeve notes to In My Own Time (Just Sunshine/Columbia, 1971)
16 Ralph J. Gleason: liner notes to Dino Valente (Columbia, 1968 /Koch CD 1998)
17 Richie Unterberger: Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers (Miller Freeman Books, 2000)
|18 Richie Havens: They Can’t Hide Us Anymore (Harper Collins, 1999)
19 Richie Unterberger: Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers (Miller Freeman Books, 2000)
20 Roger McGuinn interviewed by Syd Griffin (Mojo magazine, June 2000)
21 Bob Gibson & Carol Bender: I Came For To Sing (Folk Era Books, 1996)
22 Simon Wordsworth: Fred Neil. The Last Undiscovered Greenwich Village Folk Legend (Goldmine magazine, April 11th 1996)
23 Jac Holzman interviewed by Shari Roman (Mojo magazine, July 1998)
24 Paul Colby & Martin Fitzpatrick: The Bitter End. Hanging Out At America’s Nightclub (Cooper Square Press, 2002)
25 Steve De Naut interviewed by Toni Ruiz (June 2001)
26 Richie Unterberger: Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers (Miller Freeman Books, 2000)
27 Vince Martin message -Everybody’s Talkin’ forum: www.delphi.com/thedolphins/start
28 Liner notes to the CD reissue It’s So Hard To Tell You Who’s Going To Love You Best (Capitol, 1969 / Megaphone CD, 1999)
29 Liner notes to the CD reissue of Judy Henske / High Flying Bird (Elektra, 1963-1964 / Rhino CD, 2001)
30 Tim Hardin interviewed by Michael Zwerin, liner notes to Tim Hardin 3 -Live In Concert (Verve Forecast, 1968 / Polydor CD, 1995)
31 Richie Unterberger: Urban Spacemen And Wayfaring Strangers (Miller Freeman Books, 2000)
32 Liner notes to Dino Valente (Columbia, 1968/ Koch CD, 1998)
33 Murray Kronis interviewed by Toni Ruiz (April 2001)
34 Ben Edmonds: “I Don’t Hear A Word They’re Saying…” (Mojo magazine, February 2000)
35 Howard Solomon message -Everybody’s Talkin’ forum: www.delphi.com/thedolphins/start
36 Ric O’Barry interviewed by Henry Llach (May 2003)37 Ric O’Barry interviewed by Henry Llach (May 2003)
38 Ben Edmonds: “I Don’t Hear A Word They’re Saying…” (Mojo magazine, February 2000)